Carole Simpson didn’t even have time to sip the tea she insisted on making herself last Thursday before she was ushered under the bright lights of a TV studio in Boston to comment live on CNN news.
It’s been that kind of fall for the leader-in-residence in Emerson College’s Department of Journalism. She has found herself in demand from a lot more people than her students as the second presidential debate approaches.
The news media keep calling.
It all started when Simpson, who as an ABC news anchor 20 years ago became the first woman to moderate a presidential debate, wrote an op-ed piece in The Boston Globe this August. She said it was high time for a second woman to take center stage. Her wish was granted when CNN’s Candy Crowley was chosen to moderate this Tuesday’s town-hall style debate between President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney.
“When I found out it had been 20 years since there was a woman moderator I decided it was high time for me to shed some light on my experiences,” Simpson, 71, says.
And shed light she has -- multiple times on CNN and NPR, in The Washington Post, the Atlantic, and on MSNBC, just to name a few. All the media attention hasn’t always been easy.
“I want to start this class with an apology to all of you,” she tells the seniors and graduate students in her Emerson class, The Road to the White House. “Our syllabus is a mess right now, and it’s because these interviews are taking up so much of my time.”
Fresh from her appearance on CNN an hour before and fortified with a handful of candy corn for lunch, she tells them she’s exhausted.
“Will you forgive me?” she asks.
Without missing a beat, a student responds, “Will you take us all to drinks at the Ritz to make up for it?”
Simpson laughs and continues to joke with her students during her class, in which students analyze up-to-the-minute election coverage. And in truth, the students do forgive her – and more.
“It’s the most open dialogue I’ve ever been able to have with a professor,” says Emerson senior Ross Lippman. “And to be able to have it with someone like Carole is really special because she’s incredibly respected in broadcasting and in politics but she’s just so down to earth when she comes into class. She’s incredibly informative without making it your typical lecture.”
During her trailblazing career with ABC News, Simpson won three Emmy’s and became the first African-American woman to serve as an anchor of a major network.
After she retired from ABC in 2006, she moved to Boston to be close to her daughter, and, later, her three grandchildren. She says because she enjoyed teaching years ago at Northwestern University and Tuskegee Institute and because she’d moved to a place just a few blocks from Emerson’s campus, she found the college a perfect fit for her post-broadcast career. So she joined the college’s journalism department in 2007.
“I find teaching so rewarding because you can see the growth in each student,” she says. “You can see what you’ve done for them and then they stay in contact, which I just love.”
During Thursday’s class, the students jump into a lively discussion about this year’s first presidential debate. A seasoned moderator, Simpson handles the ebb and flow of conversation with ease, offering her own insights and political analysis along the way. For every comment a student makes, Simpson offers one of her own.
“Tell me what Joe Biden has to do during his debate to make up for Obama’s weak performance,” she asks a student talking about the VP debate.
Simpson says she tries to encourage her students to find the value in political coverage and analysis, even in a changing world of communication.
“When I went into journalism in the 60's, all of us who got into the field did so because we wanted to change America,” she says. “Today, we have more problems in this country than ever before and it’s disturbing to me to find so few students want to report on that. They all want to do sports or entertainment, but I try to get them to see why hard news and politics are so much more important.”
After the class discusses this year’s debate, Simpson has them look back to the debate she moderated in 1992 between presidential candidates George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot. She highlights the most important moments as the class analyzes what they saw unfolding on screen.
“I call myself ‘the woman with the microphone’ because I really had no control of what was going on,” she tells the students. “People thought I picked and chose who was being called on, but in fact I had a producer in my ear telling me what to do at every moment.”
The debate Simpson moderated debuted the town-hall style that will again be used for this Tuesday’s debate. In this format an audience of undecided voters pose questions directly to the candidates instead of the more formal moderator-to-candidate dialogue.
Simpson says she likes the idea of regular Americans being able to participate, but she’s frustrated that this year’s town hall format debate was once again given to the woman – this time Candy Crowley.
“It's shocking that the second time a woman is doing it, they will not permit her ask her own questions,” says Simpson, who has written a memoir, “News Lady,” about her life and her experiences as a journalist. “Women should be in the top banana role, and it’s outrageous [that they’re] not allowed to be there yet.”
Simpson says she was furious that moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS did not ask about women’s issues during the first presidential debate. If it were up to her, she says, she wouldn’t let it happen again.
“If I were Candy Crowley this Tuesday, I would go rogue if the questions I thought were important were not being asked, especially the questions important to women,” says Simpson. “They can't stop her if she does, so I would just go for it.”
Simpson says if she had the chance to ask a question at this Tuesday’s debate, she would demand Mitt Romney nail down his position on abortion once and for all, an issue she considers exceptionally important given that in her view the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade should have settled it nearly 40 years ago.
“I’m sick of white men telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies,” she says. “It’s a giant step backwards all women need to be aware of.”
Simpson’s days as an anchor or reporter may be over, but being in the media spotlight this election season has revived the energy the News Lady brought to the camera for nearly 40 years in journalism.
“I’ve missed the oxygen!” she acknowledges, theatrically sucking in air to demonstrate. “Oxygen is what I call air-time. I love it! It's so exciting to do these interviews, to sit under the hot lights, to have the microphone on and the earpiece in. Live television -- there's really nothing like it.”
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.